In the wake of the arrest of Colton Harris-Moore and his surprising internet fandom, we took a look at what made some criminals into folk heroes in the manner of the legendary Robin Hood. Five factors stood out in case after case:
1. The outlaw is a victim of injustice from authorities, and is paying back the favor.
2. The outlaw helps common people.
3. The outlaw is sacrificing his life for a political stance.
4. The outlaw does things the average Joe would love to try, if he had the courage.
5. The outlaw’s outlandish adventures provide entertainment like a long-running serial.
Let’s see how these factors contributed to the celebrity status of a few more outstanding cases. One thing that immediately arises is that factor one, paying back “the man” for unfair treatment, can be experienced vicariously. If the police or the victims of crime can be seen as oppressors to the masses or just having an unfair edge, then it doesn’t matter whether the criminal himself experienced a particular injustice.
1. Attila Ambrus
After some notice as a hockey player, Attila Ambrus committed 29 robberies of banks, post offices, and travel agencies in Hungary between 1993 and 1999. Millions cheered on his crime spree, as they saw him as the “Hungarian Robin Hood” and his robberies as a redistribution of wealth (vicarious factor one) from corrupt authorities to the everyday man. Banks were state owned until 1989, after which some fell into the hands of corrupt entrepreneurs. Ambrus never killed anyone, but he never gave away any of his ill-gotten gains, either. He was dubbed the “Whiskey Robber” because he had a shot at a nearby bar before his robberies, and the “Gentleman Bandit” because he treated bank tellers politely, even flirting with them. Ambrus’ sports background, good looks, and popularity among women fed his reputation (factor four). After he was arrested in 1999, he escaped from prison by tying bed sheets together. Ambrus committed a few more robberies and fed his public relations machine, which gathered fans on an internet site and started negotiations for the movie rights to this story (factor five). He was rearrested and is in prison in the Satoraljaujhely maximum security prison.
2. John Dillinger
John Dillinger got himself into plenty of trouble with the law early in his life, but didn’t rob his first bank until 1933, at the height of the Depression. His spectacularly daring prison escape afterward made a great story for the newspapers and radio. From then on, he was destined to become a legend. In 1933-34, most ordinary citizens were hurting for cash, and the banks were seen as one of the causes of their misery (vicarious factor one). The police were also seen as oppressors, especially after the experience of Prohibition just a few years before. Dillinger and his gang were blamed for (or credited with) more bank robberies than they could have possibly committed. Dillinger’s status as Public Enemy #1 only elevated his stardom among ordinary citizens. It’s true that Dillinger was generous with his proceeds (factor two), but it wasn’t an altruistic campaign -a tiny sliver of bank robbery proceeds went a long way in convincing everyday people to protect the gang. Dillinger was living a 1930s version of the American Dream, as honest work didn’t pay off nearly as well as theft (factor four). A newsreel about the case was shown in theaters, and federal authorities were outraged at the public’s reaction.
Movie audiences across America cheered when Dillinger’s picture appeared on the screen. They hissed at pictures of D.O.I. special agents. When he heard the news, D.O.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover was outraged . He put the town of Mooresville under surveillance, and threatened to prosecute the Dillinger family unless they cooperated with the D.O.I.
Dillinger’s very public death at the hands of federal agents in front of the Biograph Theater in Chicago made a fitting climax to the epic story (factor five) of a man who dared to stick it to authorities (factor one).
3. Bucky Phillips
Ralph James “Bucky” Phillips escaped from prison in April of 2006, only a week short of completing his sentence for parole violation. Police suspected he was behind the shooting of three police officers in two separate incidents while he was on the run. One New York state trooper died from his injuries. One day after Phillips was put on the FBI’s Most Wanted List, he was captured on September 8, 2006. A couple of months later, he pleaded guilty to murder and attempted murder, and was sentenced to 40 years to life. During the months Phillips was on the run, he became somewhat of a folk hero not for anything he did personally, but for the way police pursued him (vicarious factor one). New York residents were annoyed at the intrusive nature of the investigation. Phillip’s family was harassed. State troopers stopped a couple of men in the woods, ex-Marines Bradley Horton on an ATV and Peter Krupa on a dirt bike. The two men rode off, and police opened fire, shooting Horton in the back five times. Horton died later that night. Police denied the shooting was related to the search for Phillips, but other reports contradict that stance. While Phillips was at large, t-shirts were being sold that said “Run, Bucky Run!” and his supporters set up the Bucky Phillips Defense Fund. The site lists many irregularities in the case, although it does not proclaim his innocence.
4. D.B. Cooper
A man calling himself Dan Cooper, later known as D.B. Cooper, held a planeload of passengers hostage with what appeared to be a homemade bomb in 1971. His goal wasn’t an alternate destination or terrorism, but money. Cooper demanded $200,000 and two parachutes, which were delivered when the plane landed in Seattle. He allowed the passengers to leave the plane, then ordered the crew to fly at a low altitude to Mexico City. Over the Lewis River outside of Portland. Oregon, Cooper jumped out of the plane with one parachute and a briefcase full of cash. He was never seen again. Some of the money was found in 1980, 40 miles from the site of the search for Cooper, but it may have washed down the river. Meanwhile, the story of D.B. Cooper grew into legend. The mystery of the story gave rise to several possible endings (factor five), and many men claimed to be Cooper over the years. We can imagine that he was killed and his body scattered over the countryside, eaten by animals, or just dead but never found. We can also imagine him in some tropical country, enjoying margaritas and smiling to himself (factor four).
5. Gregorio Cortez
Gregorio Cortez was born in Mexico but grew up in south Texas. Two sheriffs were looking for a Mexican horse thief in 1901. During questioning at Cortez’ home, the officers shot at Cortez and wounded his brother. Cortez shot back, killing one officer in what could be considered self-defense depending on your point of view, and ran away. Police arrested Cortez’ family members. A posse found Cortez’ hiding place, and a gunfight left two more lawmen dead. Cortez was only on the run for ten days, but became a polarizing force in south Texas, as one group wanted to lynch him and the another defended him, citing the unfair treatment Mexicans received from police (factor one). Cortez’ supporters continued to fight for a pardon after he was convicted. Cortez was released after receiving a conditional pardon in 1913, joined the cause of the Mexican Revolution (factor three), and died of pneumonia in 1916. To this day, some say he was the original horse thief and others say he was purely a victim of racism.
6. Billy Miner
Ezra Allen Miner, who went by the name Bill, was nicknamed “the Gentleman Bandit” because he was polite and considerate as he held up stagecoaches and trains in the Old West in between adventures in other countries (factor four). He is credited with the origin of the familiar phrase, “Hands up!” Miner became a folk hero in Canada after he was arrested for the robbery of a Canadian Pacific Railway train in 1906. The company was very unpopular at the time (vicarious factor one), and Canadians lined the railway to cheer Miner on as authorities transferred him to prison. Miner never killed anyone, and he spent a large portion of his adult life in prison. He had a couple of wild escapes (factor five) under his belt before he died in the Georgia State Penitentiary in 1913.
7. Tampa Bay Mystery Monkey
A rhesus macaque dubbed the Tampa Bay Mystery Monkey has been on the loose in Florida for over a year. The monkey is not charged with any crime, but has been seen stealing food from homes and trash cans in the area around Tampa Bay. This monkey has become first a local, then a national legend as he evades capture time and time again. His Facebook page shows him to have over 80,000 fans! Although not technically a criminal, the monkey is a fugitive, and his folk hero status is due to factor five, because his escapes and antics have proven to be quite entertaining.
These stories have been drastically shortened for this article, you should follow the highlighted links to learn more about these and other outlaw folk heroes. Continue reading: How I Lost my Friends